Losing a spouse is incredibly difficult, especially when that loss is abrupt and the result of violence. It’s even scarier when their death immediately impacts where you live and how you live. For example, military widows/widowers typically have a thirty day window to pack up and leave base housing. Imagine needing to bury a loved one, move out of your house, find a place to live, and deal with a multitude of details all at once. I’ve seen it happen, although I have not experienced it personally, and I felt traumatized even though I wasn’t the grieving spouse.
I’ve had several friends lose their husbands to aircraft accidents and suicides. After the initial shock, one of the most prominent concerns, besides loneliness and grief, that these ladies have is the fear of forgetting their husband’s voice, face, smell…all of the little details that we notice about people with whom we are intimate. They are also terrified that others who knew the person will forget too and live life as though they never existed. There is a fear of losing the life and memory of a loved one into the black hole of forgetfulness.
Maybe its merely my perspective, but this is even more poignant in the military community, because often the person who died was someone others trusted to take a bullet on behalf of an entire team of people and perhaps that is how they died. They were the wingman everyone wanted to fly with because they were steady, reliable, and unlikely to freak out when all hell broke loose. The grief seems deeper somehow because that person was quite literally a hero to their comrades. Often, there is guilt because other soldiers survived, perhaps, at the expense of the one who fell. The pain is even worse when wingmen and brothers/sisters in arms witnessed the tragedy. It becomes a life’s purpose to the widow (or widower) and to the brothers in arms to keep that memory alive; to make sure that they did not die in vain. We remember death dates, some of us wear a cuff bracelet with that person’s name, and others ink a commemoration onto their body. All of these symbols are a means of remembering, and showing that we remember, to those around us. It gives an opportunity to talk, share grief, and recount how incredible that person was.
One of my fondest memories was of my husband’s squadron commander in the 12th Fighter Squadron, also known as ‘The Dirty Dozen.’ His name was Pugs and he was pugnacious. In Air Force speak, he was what we call a “chest poker.” Because his personality was so assertive, people either really liked him or really didn’t. I was, and am, a HUGE fan. Unlike many commanders, Pugs treated the wives like we mattered. If the system was broken and we weren’t getting the necessary care, he would move heaven and earth to change that, with no fear of hacking off the wrong person. My own personal story that made me love him with extra devotion had to do with my second pregnancy. The guys were all deployed to Singapore for a joint exercise. Naturally, the wives were left at home with our kids and each other, but we were in Alaska which meant we really had to rely on one another when we got into a pinch. At any rate, I had a three year old and I was 20 weeks pregnant. For some reason, I felt awful! I was at a friend’s house for a kid’s pumpkin decorating contest and I felt so badly that I was rude enough to ask if I could lay in her bed (tacky but desperate!). It occurred to me that I should probably go to the hospital and have an obstetrician evaluate me and the baby even though I was sure everything was okay. Two hours later, my commander’s wife called her husband Pugs to let him know that I was in labor. I felt certain I would be delivering a pre-term son and losing him all before my husband could get back to the states, if the Air Force would fly him back. Pugs made sure that Brad was on the first flight back. In truth, he could have let me suck it up and deal with it all alone. Seventy two hours later, my husband walked into my hospital room and I lost every shred of remaining composure. I spent a great deal of time in the hospital with my son (we stopped having kids after that) and Pugs and his wife would even come see me in the hospital. There just aren’t words to describe how Pugs’ care for me made me love him (platonically) but unreservedly.
Several years later, I got a phone call out of the blue. Pugs was dead. We were all in shock. We were all immediately concerned for his wife and child. Many, many people who served with him dropped everything in order to make it to the memorial service in Alaska and then to the burial at Arlington. We loved him, because, quite simply, he loved his people. To this day, we remember him and stay in touch with others who knew him too. We try to check in on his family, because they matter to us.
As I’ve been thinking about friends we’ve lost and my friends who have lost their husbands, I’ve been struck by the fact that I can’t forget them. They helped to make me who I am today. But I can see that some people do forget. Maybe their experience with that person was different or emotionally they are able to compartmentalize.
As I was sitting in church today and trying to remember people who need prayer because of angelversaries, I felt Jesus whisper to me. You see, I all too easily forget the hero that Jesus is and how he saved me from my sin and how he saves me from myself each and every day. I forget about him and the pain he suffered on my behalf. He was steady in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was reliable during a horrific beating and when dragging that heavy cross through the streets. He loved me so much that He never threw me under the bus and condemned me. He loved me so much that he literally moved heaven and earth, and descended into hell, so that I’d be safe eternally. Sometimes I’m so worried about not forgetting people, and I end up forgetting God instead.